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Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky

Staff writer, Tom Ellen, tackles the almighty tome

Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky

Week 3 (and a bit)

Listen, Crime and Punishment, sit down for a second. There’s something I need to tell you.

The thing is… Well, there’s no easy way to say this, but I’ve been reading another book on the side.

I know, I know, and I’m sorry. I thought it best to be honest with you. It started as just a chapter here and there – a bit of fun after a whole evening of listening to you and your powerfully depressing 19th Century social realism. But by the end, it turned into a full-blown thing.

Don’t worry, though – it’s over now. I finished it last night. It’s back on my bookshelf – I won’t see it again. I swear. It meant nothing.

The reason for this minor lapse – I’m talking to you now, reader, rather than the book – was simple: Crime and Punishment is really long. Yes, I’m enjoying it and it’s hugely gripping and almost sickeningly well written (Dostoyevsky’s ability to convey fear with just his pen is masterful) but it’s only now – roughly a quarter of the way through – that the sheer size of it is starting to become a problem.

It seems unconquerable. No matter how much I read, I never seem to make any progress. My bookmark’s currently nestled between pages 150 and 151 and it still seems laughably near the front cover.

There’s something easy, something finishable, about a slim volume. You know that, no matter how drab or slow or written by Jeffrey Archer it is, it’ll all be over quickly and you can move on to something else. There’s no commitment with a skinny book. The end is always in sight.

Anyway, since my philandering days are behind me and I’m now fully devoted to literary monogamy, what’s been happening in C&P since my last entry?

Well, Raskolnikov – you remember him, our rag-wearing, perma-miserable protagonist – only went and did the thing he was thinking of only going and doing at the end of my last instalment (see below). Since then, he’s had a pretty tough time of it. He’s become feverish with worry, met his sister’s slightly irritating husband-to-be and seems to have basically lost what little will to live he originally possessed. He “gazes mechanically” at beautiful sunsets and the sight of a woman drowning in the river leaves his heart feeling “hollow and empty… Even his depression had passed, there was not a trace of the energy with which he had set out to ‘make an end of it all’. Complete apathy had succeeded it.”

Those cheeky, carefree hundred-page volumes on my bookshelf suddenly seem more desirable than ever…

Week 2

I'll be honest, this book is not a barrel of laughs.

I’m currently 66 pages into C&P and so far Dostoyevsky has introduced me to two very different – but equally crestfallen - men. The first, Raskolnikov, is a permanently scowling student who dresses in rags and has nightmares about people flogging horses to death. The second is the amusingly-named (but wholly unamusing) Marmeladov – a drunkard so miserable he appears to be physically incapable of grinning (“he broke off, tried to smile, but suddenly his chin began to twitch”).

But, hang on, it gets worse. In the St Petersburg of Crime and Punishment, social functions are generally conducted over “cracked teapots full of stale and weak tea” and family homes are swarming with stick-thin children, “crying and shaking in the corner, having probably just received a beating.” Not even a joke that occurred to me (which, admittedly, was weaker than the aforementioned tea) about the possibility of Marmeladov having a mate named 'Jamov' or 'Peanutbutterov' could lighten my mood as I approached the end of chapter six on the tube this morning.

However, despite this relentless deluge of despair, the story that’s emerging is an undeniably gripping one. Raskolnikov, in dire financial straits, has spent the last few pages mulling over a plan to bump off a rich old woman and make away with her cash. But, wait - before you start judging old Raskolnikov too harshly, it’s important you hear the full story. This lady is universally disliked and she’s promised her vast fortune to the already-healthily-stocked coffers of a far-off monastery. All of which has left Raskolnikov wrestling with the sizeable moral dilemma of whether or not it can ever be acceptable to murder a pensioner and nick her life savings. If this was a cartoon, he’d have an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, each cheerfully offering their opinion.

When I left him this morning, he was approaching the old woman’s front door with an axe stuffed in his jacket. Apparently, the shoulder-devil in his mind made the stronger case. If I thought the first few pages were depressing, I’m clearly in for a bit of a shock.

A barrel of laughs it isn't, but I have to say I'm quite enjoying this...

Week 1

My relationship with bulky books is a chequered one. Georges Perec’s mammoth Life: A User’s Manual aside, most of the novels I like best fit snugly into the average jacket pocket. The only time I’m likely to reach the end of a doorstop-sized tome is if I’m trying to track down a Zumba class in the Yellow Pages. I once started reading the Old Testament – just to see what all the fuss was about - but I couldn’t get past a lengthy chapter about 50 pages in, which featured a seemingly endless list of people ‘begatting’ one another.

Consequently, I’m finding the idea of tackling Crime and Punishment a daunting one. I chose the book from our rundown of literature’s ‘heavyweights’ because I’d already read Dostoyevsky’s brilliant-yet-massively-depressing 1864 novel Notes from the Underground. However, Notes is very much a jacket-pocket read – just over 100 pages. Crime and Punishment, on the other hand, clocks in at a whopping 576 pages of densely-woven prose examining the nature of morality and the misery of human existence. If that doesn’t brighten up my morning commute, nothing will.

One thing’s for sure: I’m going to need a bigger jacket…